These paired Arthurian legends suggest that erotic desire and the desire for companionship undergird national politics. The maiden Britomart, Queen Elizabeth's fictional ancestor, dons armor to search for a man whom she has seen in a crystal ball. While on this quest, she seeks to understand how one can be chaste while pursuing a sexual goal, in love with a man while passionately attached to a woman, a warrior princess yet a wife. As Spenser's most sensitively developed character, Britomart is capable of heroic deeds but also of teenage self-pity. Her experience is anatomized in the stories of other characters, where versions of love and friendship include physical gratification, torture, mutual aid, competition, spiritual ecstasy, self-sacrifice, genial teasing, jealousy, abduction, wise government, sedition, and the valiant defense of a pig shed.
More than three hundred years ago there lived in England a poet named Edmund Spenser. He was brave and true and gentle, and he loved all that was beautiful and good. Edmund Spenser wrote many poems, and the most beautiful of all is the one called ‘The Faerie Queen.’ He loved so dearly all things that are beautiful and all things that are good, that his eyes could see Fairyland more clearly than the eyes of other men ever could. There are many, many stories in ‘The Faerie Queen,’ and out of them all I have told you only eight. Some day you will read the others for yourself.
The Faerie Queene was the first epic in English and one of the most influential poems in the language for later poets from Milton to Tennyson. Dedicating his work to Elizabeth I, Spenser brilliantly united medieval romance and renaissance epic to expound the glory of the Virgin Queen. The poem recounts the quests of knights including Sir Guyon, Knight of Constance, who resists temptation, and Artegall, Knight of Justice, whose story alludes to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. Composed as an overt moral and political allegory, The Faerie Queene, with its dramatic episodes of chivalry, pageantry and courtly love, is also a supreme work of atmosphere, colour and sensuous description.
From its opening scenes--in which the hero refrains from fighting a duel, then discovers that his horse has been stolen—Book Two of The Faerie Queene redefines the nature of heroism and of chivalry. Its hero is Sir Guyon, the knight of Temperance, whose challenges frequently take the form of temptations. Accompanied by a holy Palmer in place of a squire, Guyon struggles to subdue himself as well as his enemies. His adventures lead up to a climactic encounter with the arch-temptress Acrasia in her Bower of Bliss, which provides the occasion for some of Spenser's most sensuous verse. With its mixture of chivalric romance, history, and moral allegory, Book Two succeeds in presenting an exuberant exploration of the virtue of self-restraint.
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